"Avatar"
Written by Howard Gordon and David Duchovny
Directed by James Charleston



In which Skinner seems to be the main suspect of a murder investigation, prompting Mulder and Scully to seek out the true circumstances, particularly regarding a mysterious old woman ...

Status Report - Memorable Quotes - Final Analysis





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Status Report

One of the great rarities for the series was detailed character development for the supporting cast. Specifically, it was rare for anyone on the supporting cast to get an episode devoted to his or her background or personal life. The most famous and well-regarded example was “Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man”, which was ostensibly a journey through Walter Mitty territory. This episode, however, attempts to develop Skinner within the confines of the mythology.

It’s not a bad concept, on the face of it. If there is one major change that would have played to the benefit of the series, without question, it would have been a larger role for Walter Skinner. The character’s position, caught between loyalty to Mulder’s crusade and the demands of the conspiracy, would have been a natural extension from the two primary points of view.

Clearly, Chris Carter wanted to keep the regular cast to the bare minimum in order to keep the “anthology” nature of the series from becoming impossible to maintain. Two characters expressing mutually exclusive theories for new and exciting paranormal events are easier to hand over to a writer than a larger cast with developing history. This episode seems to be an attempt to explore the idea of adding Skinner in a more prominent role.

Carter, among others, might have drawn the incorrect conclusion from the reaction to this episode. It seems as though Skinner was only infrequently allowed to grow, and quite often, that growth was self-contradictory. This is the result of only touching on the character every once and a while, with a tentative hand, as an unfortunate response to the audience’s rejection of the episode.

The problem with the episode, however, is not the emphasis on Walter Skinner. The problem is the lack of clarity. The writers take a relatively straightforward premise, Skinner being framed for murder by the conspiracy, and attach several other concepts and ideas to the outline. The result is a jumbled mess of incredibly wrong historical reference.

The episode begins well enough, revealing that Skinner’s life has been falling apart, taking a toll on his marriage. This is certainly no surprise; Skinner has been dealing with the consequences of his decision to back Mulder and Scully since “Paper Clip”. Clearly unwilling to deal with the realities of his personal life, Skinner gets himself drunk and takes a woman home. Things get progressively worse when the woman ends up dead, after Skinner has a disturbing vision of an old woman straddling his chest.

Mulder’s first inclination is to back Skinner without question. Skinner, however, doesn’t want Mulder’s help, and that’s disconcerting, under the circumstances. It doesn’t help when all of the evidence points to the fact that Skinner’s playmate from the night before was a prostitute. Scully seems more shocked at that news than Mulder, or at least more judgmental; the irony is that Skinner’s situation seems to say more about the primary characters than Skinner himself.

Things become more questionable when Scully finds evidence of an unknown phosphorescent material around the nose and mouth of the prostitute. This is the first real indication that something more than a simple murder has taken place. The evidence, of course, becomes more and more conflicting: Skinner supposedly paid for the prostitute, but he seems awfully distressed when he learns about it.

By the time Sharon Skinner steps into the picture, the episode has already more or less settled on a sad and depressed picture of Walter Skinner: a man breaking under the pressure of his job, seeking some fleeting moment of joy as the world falls apart around him. The timing of the separation is telling, because it’s right after he stood up to Cancer Man and placed himself in the line of fire.

When Agent Bonnecaze does his best to stop Mulder and Scully from delving any further into Skinner’s situation, pending a hearing by OPC, there are obvious connections to be made. In the first season, OPC was just another group under the control of the conspiracy. The plot of the episode seems clear, demonstrating how Skinner’s weaknesses are being exploited by the conspiracy. What remains a mystery, however, is how the prostitute died.

Scully puts forth the theory that Skinner killed the woman as a result of violent REM sleep behavior disorder. Skinner, it seems, has been getting therapy for months as a result of recurring nightmares involving an old woman, straddling his chest. Mulder, of course, doesn’t like this theory, since it still leaves Skinner culpable for the prostitute’s death.

This is one aspect of the episode that should have been better researched. Mulder takes the mention of the old woman in Skinner’s dream and pulls out a book. He tells Scully that the old woman in Skinner’s dream resembles a “succubus” from the lore of the Middle Ages. According to Mulder’s book, the succubus in question often leaves “luminous phenomena” behind after a visitation.

The problem is, there is absolutely nothing to link the legend of the succubus, which most people know had more to do with demons in the form of young and beautiful women, to the old woman in Skinner’s nightmares. The writers force this connection because the audience is meant to conclude that the succubus killed the woman, jealous of any other female cavorting with its victim.

If that’s the implication, then the behavior of the old woman (by now clearly “real”) doesn’t make sense. Simply paying attention to the episode reveals the old woman’s true purpose: to alert Skinner to danger. Sure enough, someone runs Sharon off the road using Skinner’s car, and Skinner is accused of trying to kill his wife in light of the impending divorce.

Mulder won’t simply let Skinner go down without some kind of explanation, so he forces his boss to explain the dreams. And of course, it turns out that Skinner has seen the old woman before. In fact, this old woman kept him from dying in Vietnam. Not only is this an interesting extension of the story told in “One Breath”, but it’s another instance of a spiritual power intervening for someone related to Mulder’s quest.

It’s hard to understand why such a power, specifically saving Skinner for some unknown purpose and protecting him now against the conspiracy, would take the form of an old crone. In terms of mythology, the crone arbitrates over death, the passing between one world and the next. So in that sense, it does fit the situation. But considering that sex is also a part of the equation, it seems more directly intended as a frightening and disturbing image.

Taken in context of “One Breath”, of course, one can consider whether or not the protective spiritual force aiding Mulder and his allies might choose its form or forms based on the needs of the individual. Scully’s religious considerations and medical needs led to the manifestation of Nurse Owens, just as the circumstances at the Strughold mine necessitated the manifestation of apparent aliens. In Skinner’s case, it had to be something that he wouldn’t want to face or deal with, because Skinner needed to place his experience behind a psychological wall. The intent was to keep Skinner amenable to paranormal theories, without giving him a reason to openly pursue them.

Despite the fact that the writers attempt to take this benevolent force and make it needlessly frightening and sinister, the overall premise might have worked as an interesting and unexpected character study. The implication of this episode is not very flattering for Skinner. For the conspiracy to frame him by hiring a prostitute in his name, they had to know whether or not Skinner would take the bait. And that means that Skinner had to have fallen into a disturbing pattern, perhaps quite recently given his hospitalization in February 1996 (“Apocrypha”).

That being the case, the logic of the situation seems hard to justify. If the old woman represents a protective spiritual force, why would it wait until the trap had been sprung to act? Granted, the old woman had been showing up in his dreams for about three months, pre-dating the shooting in early February and this subsequent plot, but why wait so long to take such overt measures to save his career?

The answer provided by the writers is suggested, but never quite addressed: that the threat posed by losing Skinner as an ally to the X-Files, thereby threatening Mulder and Scully’s future role, is too much of a risk. While this is suggested, it isn’t supported well enough by the plot, so the critical linkages are hard to make.

This element of the episode is also limited in scope and execution. Sharon Skinner is given information by this spiritual force that allows Walter to save the day, but beyond that, there is little effect. Walter completely shuts down any attempt, in his own mind or by the agents, to explore the meaning of the old woman’s intervention. And since this side of Skinner’s life is never referenced again, even when his life is placed in jeopardy time and time again, it makes the whole thing seem rather fleeting.

An episode devoted to the personal life of a recurring character should ultimately reveal something about the character that either changes that character’s life or leads to a massive impact for the regulars. In this case, the plot merely serves to flesh out the desperate state of Skinner’s life. It’s true that Skinner turns around and reconnects with his wife, but even that transforming moment is later rendered moot.

Questions remained answered by the writers, further undermining the quality of the episode. How did the killers manage to completely snap the prostitute’s neck without a struggle or waking Skinner? Were the two of them drugged? Where did the odd glowing enzyme on the prostitute’s nose and mouth come from? What did Skinner do to prompt the conspiracy to act more definitively only weeks after delivering a warning to behave? And if Cancer Man simply wanted to ruin Skinner, why not just hand a recording of Skinner’s conversation with Mulder to the FBI psych division?

Focusing an episode on Skinner was a damn good idea; unleashing the combination of Howard Gordon (a writer with mixed results at best) and David Duchovny (a relatively inexperienced plotter) was perhaps not so well considered. There are some good ideas within the episode, but the wrong elements are explored deeply while others are skimmed over. And frankly, whichever writer blundered on the entire “succubus” myth needs to have his pen taken away!

Perhaps the most telling problem with this episode is that the title has absolutely nothing to do with the episode. Not only is there nothing resembling a “succubus” in this episode, there’s also nothing resembling an “avatar”. One might stretch the definition and say that Sharon briefly embodies the spirit taking the form of an old woman, but that’s not even a good use of the concept.

The episode remains, then, a flawed work that had a far more negative effect than one might have expected. Instead of simply failing, this episode became an easy example for those against the idea of fleshing out the recurring characters and making them more prominent. Considering that the series struggled in later seasons from a lack of fresh perspective, this was a highly unfortunate mistake.


Memorable Quotes

SCULLY: “Business must be booming.”
MULDER: “I think you mean ‘banging’…”

LORRAINE: “You’d be surprised who some of my clients are.”
MULDER: “No, I don’t think I would be.”

OPC: “Do you believe in paranormal phenomena, Agent Scully?”
SCULLY: “Whatever extreme cases I have encountered, I have always viewed through the lens of science.”


Final Analysis

Overall, this episode fails to capitalize on the idea of delving into the world of Walter Skinner. The conspiracy elements seem a bit redundant, and the paranormal side of the episode is a forced and inconsistent mess. Instead of developing something unique about Skinner, the episode dwells on what is already known or suggested, leaving the character in the same emotional place at the end as in the beginning.

Writing: 0/2
Acting: 2/2
Direction: 1/2
Style: 1/4

Final Rating: 4/10




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